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Attachment, regulation, and competency (ARC) framework

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

A little boy sits on stairs looking at a smart phone

Trauma is an emotional response to an overwhelmingly stressful event or circumstance that threatens or harms your health and safety. It can be acute, following a single traumatic event (like a car accident, house fire, or robbery); or chronic, in response to prolonged or repeated traumas (such as incidents of domestic abuse or deployment to a war zone).

Complex trauma, a kind of chronic trauma that often begins in childhood, can develop in response to severe stressors like childhood physical or sexual abuse, neglect, community violence, or abandonment. It tends to affect children’s development, resulting in missed milestones and physical, mental, emotional, social, and behavioral struggles.

What is the ARC framework?

The ARC (attachment, regulation, and competency) framework is a trauma-informed treatment approach. Originally developed for children and teenagers and their caregivers, it addresses the damage complex trauma can do to people’s attachment patterns, self-regulation, and basic developmental skills.

The goal of ARC-informed therapy is to help someone make meaning from disjointed, disconnected, and/or distressing experiences associated with their trauma, integrating what happened into their life story. The person learns to accept these parts of their life without sweeping them under the rug, making light of them, feeling trapped by them, or reliving them endlessly. This allows them to reengage fully with the present.

Who is ARC for?

The ARC framework can be used to treat children and teens with trauma-related conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex PTSD, depression, anxiety, or behavioral disorders. It can be adapted to a variety of settings, including:

  • School
  • Foster care
  • Group homes
  • Hospitals
  • Juvenile correction facilities
  • Group therapy
  • Youth centers

Because young people rely on parents or other guardians for their well-being, the ARC framework requires caregivers (or caregiving systems) to participate in the treatment as well.

Building a foundation for therapy

Before beginning treatment, a foundation of trust and understanding needs to be created between the therapist, child, and caregiver(s). The three parts of this foundation are engagement, education, and routine.

Engagement: Committing to therapy

In ARC treatment, the therapist evaluates and works to improve the relationship between the child and their caregiver. The caregiver has to be willing and able to engage in this process. If the caregiver isn’t involved, the ARC framework can’t be carried out as intended.

Caregivers may be less able to engage because of:

  • Caregiver trauma/stress: The child’s primary caregiver may have their own trauma that needs to be addressed before or during treatment.
  • Workplace obstacles: Long hours, unpredictable schedules, or lack of paid time off can keep caregivers from participating in therapy.
  • Lack of resources: ARC therapy requires time, energy, and money. If caregivers can’t afford therapy, some therapists may be able to offer discounted rates. Other caregivers may be able to pay for treatment but reluctant to commit the time and energy.

ARC therapists should be prepared to address these issues up front to prevent caregivers from resisting or rejecting their role in treatment later.

Education: Learning mental health basics

ARC therapists offer basic mental health education to children and their caregivers. They may discuss common misconceptions (for example, “My child just behaves badly—they’re not traumatized”) and address stigma participants may have around mental health treatment. Therapists also explain why the ARC framework needs to involve not only the child but also their system of care (parents, teachers, treatment facility staff, etc.).

Routine: Establishing a safe environment

Children struggling with complex trauma are likely to resist treatment that feels unpredictable, confusing, or out of control. By creating a routine structure in therapy, ARC therapists provide a safe, predictable setting for addressing problems and developing new skills.

Components of treatment

In the first part of the ARC model, the therapist evaluates the child-caregiver relationship through the lens of attachment theory. The second component focuses on helping the child learn to self-regulate. In the third, children strengthen their developmental competencies.

1. Attachment patterns

Attachment theory states that we learn to relate (or “attach”) to others based on our early experiences with primary caregivers. The theory outlines four basic styles of attachment:

  1. Anxious attachment: Children with anxious (or “ambivalent”) attachment have formed worried, insecure patterns of interacting after receiving inconsistent care. As adults, they may come across as clingy and too worried about their relationships.
  2. Avoidant attachment: Children with avoidant attachment have learned that their caregivers can’t reliably meet their needs, so they rely on themselves instead. Adults with avoidant attachment may struggle to be vulnerable or intimate in their relationships.
  3. Disorganized attachment: Children with disorganized attachment experience a mix of anxious and avoidant behaviors. This attachment style can develop when a parent or caregiver—someone a child depends on for comfort and safety—is also a source of fear or terror. Adults with disorganized attachment tend to have chaotic and volatile relationships.
  4. Secure attachment: Children with secure attachment trust their parent or caregiver to meet their needs and provide comfort and safety. They’re also able to separate from their caregiver without too much anxiety. As adults, they can more easily form positive relationships based on trust and vulnerability.

An ARC therapist will determine which attachment styles are at work in the caregiver/child relationship and help both parties learn to establish healthier patterns by:

  • Creating rituals and routines to foster a safe, predictable environment
  • Working on the caregiver’s mental health and past trauma so they have the mental and emotional energy to attach to their child in a healthy way
  • Teaching the caregiver how to better attune to their child’s needs
  • Implementing a parenting style of praise and reinforcement to encourage the child in healthier behaviors

2. Self-regulation

Many children who experience complex trauma are unable to regulate their emotional experiences. They stay trapped in an acute stress response, limiting their options for emotional processing to:

  • Fighting: Becoming aggressive to try and assert control over the threat
  • Fleeing: Running away from or avoiding the threat at all costs
  • Freezing: Numbing or mentally removing themselves (dissociating, for example) from the threat
  • Fawning: Trying to please others and avoid being perceived as a nuisance to neutralize the threat

In ARC therapy, children learn how to self-regulate. Self-regulation allows us to express our feelings in healthy, intentional ways instead of responding in unhealthy, instinctual patterns forged by trauma. Children improve their self-regulation skills by learning:

  • Awareness: Recognizing and correctly identifying their own emotions, as well as the emotions of others
  • Modulation: Using different strategies to adjust their state of arousal to a tolerable level
  • Expression: Communicating their emotions in safe, effective ways

3. Developmental competencies

Childhood is a critical time for self-development. Unfortunately, trauma can disrupt typical developmental stages. Children who’ve experienced complex trauma may experience setbacks or struggles with:

ARC-informed therapy helps children address these struggles by creating opportunities to:

  • Practice self-agency (the power you have over your own actions and life)
  • Connect with others through meaningful relationships
  • Identify and encourage natural strengths and talents
  • Develop goals for future growth

Healing from childhood trauma

Browse our directory to find an ARC-informed therapist for you or your child today. In addition to the ARC model, other effective forms of therapy for survivors of complex childhood trauma include:

About the author

The editorial team at works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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